Three simple ways to improve your privacy
Privacy may not be dead, but it's certainly on life support.
Forbes' Jacob Morgan states in an August 18, 2014, article that we couldn't get our privacy back even if we knew how to do so. Nathan Jorgenson counters this claim by writing in a March 31, 2014, article on Wired that privacy is alive and well -- it's just different. Jorgenson compares online privacy to a fan dance: We show what we want and conceal what we want.
At the risk of restating the obvious, the Internet is a public network. It is designed to make information easy to share. You have to assume that nothing you do on the Internet is truly private. Exhibit A: The Ashley Madison data breach. Are you really going to say you didn't see that hack attack coming? (In fact, the breach appears to have been an inside job, as controversial security expert John McAfee postulates in an August 24, 2015, article on the International Business Times.)
What's an Internet denizen to do? You may not be able to stay private online, but you can stay privater. That's the quandary facing a reader named Terry, who asks how he can block his employer from viewing his Facebook page. You can't do that, but you can ensure that your public Facebook profile doesn't present anything your employer might object to.
Terry's letter got me thinking about the three actions anyone can take to prevent sharing more of their personal details than necessary. The first is to view your Facebook profile as strangers see it. The second is to set your browser to block cookies and delete your browsing history each time you close the program. The third is to sign into a free VPN account before you use a public WiFi hotspot, and to use a free browser extension that encrypts your connection whenever possible.
See your Facebook profile the way the public sees it
Terry asks whether his employer could pay Facebook to view his private account. I'm unaware of Facebook offering any employers such a capability. If a law-enforcement agency presented the company with a warrant, Facebook would be compelled to release the account holder's information. Otherwise, your employer will see only the profile information and photos you've chosen to make public.
Of course, if you're using a Facebook account created and maintained by your employer specifically for your use as part of your job, all information in the account is the property of your employer, with a few possible exceptions. It's safest to assume everything you do on the company Facebook account is the property of the company, which means your employer has complete and relatively unfettered access to it. That's why it's important to keep your personal Facebook profile separate from your work profile.
Better yet, use LinkedIn or another "professional" social network for business, and use Facebook for personal socializing.
The first step in locking down your Facebook account is to view your personal Facebook profile as the public does. The Facebook Help Center explains how.
But there's a catch: Any photos you've shared are visible in the timelines and profiles of the people you've shared with. You can control what you share, how you share it, and who you share it with; how to do so is described on another Facebook Help Center page.
The Help Center also offers step-by-step instructions for changing who your photos are shared with and for controlling who can see what's on your timeline and in your profile.
If you're so inclined, you can give your Facebook account a full security checkup. Back in December 2014 I described "How to secure your Facebook account in six easy steps."
Block third-party cookies, and delete cookies and history on exit
Cookies aren't the only way we're tracked on the Internet, but they're still the trackers' favorite tool. When you disable all cookies, the web stops working. But you can block third-party cookies -- the ones used by ad networks and nearly all big-name web services -- without affecting how pages load and function. I also recommend that you enable the feature in your browser that deletes your history each time you close the program.
To block third-party cookies and delete your history in Internet Explorer, click Tools > Internet Options > Privacy > Advanced. Select "Block" under Third-party Cookies and click OK. On the General tab, check "Delete browsing history on exit" and click OK.
In Firefox, click the tools icon (it has three horizontal lines) in the top-right corner and choose Options > Privacy. In the menu to the right of "Accept third-party cookies," click Never. Next to "Keep until," choose "I close Firefox," and check the option to "Clear history when Firefox closes." You can also check "Tell sites that I don't want to be tracked," although I don't know whether sites honor the request.
In Google Chrome, click the tools icon in the top-right corner and choose Options. Scroll to and select "Show advanced settings." Choose the "Content settings" button under Privacy, and in the Cookies section, check two options: "Keep local data only until you close your browser" and "Block third-party cookies and site data." Click the Done button and close the Settings window.
Secure public WiFi with two free services
Do I need to tell you about the dangers of signing into your private accounts when you're using a public WiFi hotspot? In a June 24, 2014, article on Consumer Affairs, Jennifer Abel explains how easy it was for Ars Technica to set up a wireless hotspot that spoofed Xfinity and AT&T.
As CNET's Lexy Savvides writes in a June 3, 2015, article, the simple way to prevent being a victim of a spoofed WiFi hotspot is to use a VPN service such as SecurityKISS, which is free to use for up to 300MB of data transfers per day. And no matter where you may be, you can be sure your network connection is encrypted (wherever possible, at least) by downloading and installing the Electronic Frontier Foundation's free HTTPS Everywhere browser extension, which works with Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and Firefox for Android.
As the late actor Michael Conrad used to say as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on the old TV show Hill Street Blues, "Let's be careful out there."